Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a tragedy that marries the aesthetic of Grand Guignol brutality with the ironic sensibilities of camp. Directed by Tim Burton, it focuses on the eponymous vengeful serial killer played by Johnny Depp, essentially a character actor who disguises himself off-screen as a charismatic GQ-worthy hunk. Once a loving family man named Benjamin Barker, Sweeney Todd has returned to London, after having been wrongly sentenced to an Australian penal colony by Judge Turpin (played with dour contempt by Alan Rickman), a corrupt magistrate who lusted after Barker’s wife.
Sweeney Todd’s arrival in London faces him with the most infernal circumstances – his wife has ostensibly committed suicide and his daughter is now the teenage ward of Judge Turpin. Todd quickly strikes an off-key friendship with Mrs. Lovett (played by Helena Bonham Carter), a poor baker with the most unappetizing of wares, and together they form an alliance where Todd’s shave and a haircut murders provide the tasty meat filling that makes Lovett’s pies a best seller.
In the hands of a director like Tim Burton, who has consistently highlighted the tragicomic pains experienced by outsiders; and with performances by actors who specialize in garish eccentrics, and adapted from a highly successful Stephen Sondheim musical by million dollar screenwriter John Logan, Sweeney Todd should be a recipe for success. Unfortunately the entire film is marred by various missteps in tone, underwhelming musical performances and a careless attitude towards the tale’s subject matter that is both joyless and dismissive.
Depp, Rickman, Carter, et al, make the wise choice of pretending to any vocal talents, and therefore make no attempt to carry the material with any amount of showiness or panache. Depp compensates by channeling the enthusiasm of a post-punk crooner, while Carter fills her part with a manic sensibility. This would perfectly fine if the material involved was catchy show tunes or zesty pop refrains, dripping with the enthusiasm of a well-rehearsed karaoke number.
Unfortunately, the melodies involved in Sweeney Todd have a strange artfulness – which may explain why the original Broadway musical was such a success in the 1980s – which challenges the audience just as much as the lack of vocal professionalism. Simply put, amateurish enthusiasm is not the best thing to combine with challenging compositions. Furthermore, there is a sense of camp that subtly coats the entire affair, from the wry dialogue that fills up the spaces between the musical numbers to the comical contempt conveyed by the performances of Rickman and Sascha Baron Cohen (who plays a faux-Italian hair tonic shill with caricaturish glee).
The entire film is about the shock and horror of a barber who piles up bodies that turn the meat-pie loving masses into unknowing cannibals, and yet it is underscored by a conflicting tone. Throughout the film, Burton wants us to chuckle at the irony he presents to us, but he also wants us to take the tear-filled turns of tragedy utterly seriously. That’s a perfectly fine line to dance when he’s dealing with xenophobic megalomaniacs like the aliens from Mars Attacks! or the prankster phantasm from Beetlejuice, but not when his protagonist is a mournful widower burning with moral outrage.
Todd’s pain is essentially trivialized by these elements. Ultimately, by the time Sweeney Todd gets his blades within reach of Judge Turpin’s neck, there is very little reason to care how events turn out. Depp, to his credit, maintains the character’s torment projects it inwards with great intensity, but the result is that he feels ultimately disconnected from us; holding the audience at arm’s length. As such, by the time Todd’s quest for revenge reaches its inevitably doomed conclusion, Sweeney Todd fails to achieve its dramatic aspirations.